Sunday, March 28, 2010

Checked Baggage

Dear Readers -- It's been a crazy week and I've got lines to learn for a short film I'm shooting tomorrow, so instead of the usual "Parts and Labor" entry, I'd like to offer you the POV column I wrote for this month's Travel edition of Metrosource Magazine. I'll be back next week with more fun tales from Hollywood. -- D.

I hate to admit it, but I’m not a great traveler. It’s not that I don’t like seeing fabulous new places, I just don’t like the process of getting there. I tend to over-pack; thinking that I might actually need seven changes of clothes for a three-day trip. Airports, which I never liked much to begin with, have now become nightmarish with all the new security precautions. Plus being a bit of a hermit, I’m not a big fan of mingling with the general public.

Adding to the anxiety is my somewhat unlucky track record as a traveler. I’m the only person I know who has been in both a train derailment and an emergency aircraft landing. The first instance happened when I was a college student. A bunch of us had gone on a hell-raising trip to New Orleans and after 24 hours of non-stop drinking, we boarded a train back to school. Around 4:00 AM, just outside of Memphis, I was standing in the aisle chatting up some cute sophomore, when suddenly, the train jumped the tracks. Having been blessed with long, monkey-like arms, I grabbed the two luggage racks and swung back and forth until the car finally embedded itself in a patch of swampy ground. It was scary, but at age eighteen, the idea that we all might be about to die, never occurred to me. It felt more like a ride at Six Flags that had ended too soon.

Ten years later, I was aboard an airliner that flew into a violent storm. When the flight attendants strapped themselves in, I knew we were done for. Turning to the utterly silent Asian woman next to me, I launched into a lengthy monologue in an effort to assure her (and myself) that everything would be alright. As I yammering on non-stop for about an hour, I was comforted by my travelling companion’s steady gaze and occasional sympathetic nods. It was only after we touched down that I realized she spoke no English and hadn’t understood a word I’d said.

Despite these experiences, I continued to travel as needed. But the truth is that every time I boarded a commercial aircraft, I was fighting hard to suppress thoughts about death -- Horrible fiery death complete with charred debris scattered over some cornfield. I thought I had conquered my fear until about five years ago when a new complication appeared.

The sun was shining as I boarded my fight from Regan National headed back to L.A. Settling into my aisle seat, I cracked open my copy of People magazine. I felt perfectly relaxed until the flight attendants closed the cabin door. Out of nowhere, my chest tightened. I couldn’t breathe. All I could think about was how there couldn’t possibly be enough oxygen in here to last for the next five hours! I struggled to reason with my panicking brain. I had been on a great many flights. Sure, they sometimes ran out of peanuts, but they had never run out of air.

Forcing deep breathes into my lungs; I held them for a count of three before slowly releasing them. My life began to flash before my eyes. And happily, it had been a very good life indeed. I’d had loving parents and a good education. I’d blazed a trail for myself in a very tough profession and had, over the years, managed to make a good many people laugh. I’d volunteered for charities, made wonderful friends, eaten delicious food and had more than my share of sweaty, mattress-pounding sex. What else was there to life? If this was the end, I’d at least spent it well. Finally, after about 45 excruciating minutes, my breathing began to return to normal; fueled by a flimsy promise that if I got off this plane alive, I’d never fly again.

I, of course, did fly again. I’m flying home next week to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday; something I wouldn’t miss for the world. I’d be lying if I said I no longer get nervous about it. Like many, I do occasionally think about mechanical failures, wind shears and if perhaps the guy next to me is wearing exploding underpants. However, the metaphor of leaving the ground is not lost on me. We all need to relinquish control at times and remember that fear (rational or irrational) is something every human being walks through from time to time. Victory lies in the deep breath and the knowledge that most of the situations we face in our journeys are quite survivable. Let’s face it. In the end, to withdraw from life is a fate much worse than death.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Come see L.A.’s newest underground comedy sensation, STREEP TEASE: An Evening of Meryl Streep monologues performed by an all-male company.” Saturday nights @ 8 PM. Bang Comedy Theater, Los Angeles. Cast: David Dean Bottrell, Roy Cruz, Drew Droege, Steve Hasley, Ron Morehouse, Taylor Negron, Mike Rose, & Trent Walker. Tickets: http://www.bangstudio.com/streep-tease/

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Magic Envelopes!

I’m usually upstairs in my office when the postal carrier arrives, but the second I hear the creak and clank of the mail slot opening, I bound down the stairs like an Olympic sprinter to see if maybe, possibly today’s mail has brought me that which every entertainment professional hopes for: A magic envelope!

The magic envelopes I’m referring to are residual checks; wonderful little reminders that your work is still being seen on cable TV or sold on DVD, etc. Last week, I got not one, but two magic envelopes. One was for a HBO movie I did seventeen years ago. I only had one line, but I got to deliver it to Matthew Modine, so it felt like a big deal at the time. The scene also featured Lily Tomlin, Phil Collins and Sir Ian McKellen, so it was hugely fun to hang out with them between takes. Apparently the film is still being shown somewhere since the production company felt obliged to issue me a check for 43 cents - one cent less than the postage required to mail it to me. That’s okay. I’ll take it.

The second check was for the first network rerun of an episode of "Criminal Minds," I did about a year ago. First reruns on network TV are the bomb because they represent a much larger chunk of change. I have nothing but happy memories of filming that episode since I got to play an emotionally unstable scientist who was trying to plant an Anthrax bomb in a D.C. subway station. It was very fun to shoot the big confrontation scene because I got to scream the one line that all actors live to say: “Don’t come any closer or I’ll blow us all up!”

Occasionally, I get magic envelopes from an ancient episode of “JAG” where I played a white-trash convict, who along with a couple of other bad guys, escaped from a military prison and kidnapped the leading lady of the series. Our getaway vehicle of choice was an old bus - which didn’t make much sense, but was incorporated into the story because the producers happened to have some file footage of a similar-looking bus going off a cliff. Given that nobody in the cast could follow the extremely convoluted plot, it was sort of ironic that when the episode got behind schedule and my big death scene was cut, my character was shot off-screen because I “knew too much.”

Since I also have a career as a writer, magic envelopes can also come from screenplays and stage plays I’ve written over the years. Although, I’ve never gotten rich from residual checks, they are always a welcome sight. And I thank my two wonderful unions, SAG and the WGA for having made these magic envelopes possible.

Although the original thinking was that artists should participate in the profits being earned by the recycling of their work, the most revolutionary outcome of this plan was that for the first time in the history of show business, it became possible for lesser-known artists working in TV and film to actually become respected, middle-class citizens. Finally, instead of living like vagabond gypsies, one could buy a nice little place in the Valley and raise some kids.

Without residual income many of us would be forced into having “day jobs” to make ends meet. Not that there’s any shame in that, but at a certain point in your career, you don’t want to be going over the specials with impatient diners. You need to start feeling (and living) like a professional. Residuals dignify a business that can be pretty rough on its rank-and-file workers.

As we approach the next round of SAG-AFTRA-WGA negotiations, we will need to keep a close eye on the future of residuals. Our new employers, most of whom now fall into the mega-corporation category, are none too keen on the old system of sharing the wealth with the drones who originally built the castle. Tough shit, I say. If our bosses want their products to remain even marginally entertaining, they need talented, experienced professionals to pull that off. And talented, experienced professionals have got bills to pay.

At the top of this post, I’ve included a photo of the smallest residual payment I’ve received to date. It’s a check for three cents I got a couple of years ago for an episode of a sit-com I shot in back in 1989. It was a horrible traumatic experience that drove me out of acting for a number of years -- mostly because I didn’t understand at the time that show sets are only as happy as their stars allow them to be. The check is framed and hangs in a place of honor on my office wall. It's there to remind me that my work, good or bad, happy or sad, is always worth something!

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/


Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/QuitcherBitchyn

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Waiting Room

I’ve never been a particularly patient person. I came from a family of slow-moving people who seemed to think that life was something that just unfolded on its own terms and our job was merely to roll with the punches. Even as a kid, I hated that philosophy and became determined to force a little excitement into my life. I suppose that willfulness is what initially attracted me to show business. From where I was sitting (far, far from the action) I got the impression entertainment was a fast-moving lifestyle where talented people (like myself!) bounced from one glamorous project to the next.

In my early years, I tried hard to be patient. It was kind of fun to fantasize about my big break. However, my willingness to wait for fame and fortune was firmly rooted in the idea that I wouldn’t be waiting for long. Once the powers-that-be got wind of what brilliant dynamo I was, my dance card would be filled until death. It wasn’t until I was well into my 30’s that I became aware of “The Waiting Room” – the rarely talked-about place where we creative types spend quite a lot of our time.

Recently, I was asked to teach a workshop at AFTRA on the fine art of auditioning. As I looked out at the crowd, I saw a remarkable cross-section of faces; young, old, optimistic, beaten-down; plus a few folks who appeared to have been recently lobotomized. In an effort to address the often anxiety-producing subject of auditioning, I jauntily reminded the crowd that auditions were actually just an opportunity to act -- something we all liked to do! When that didn’t get quite response I’d hoped for, I stuck my neck out a little further and tried to point out why it was important to seize any opportunity to act -- even if it was only for a few minutes in a casting director’s office -- Because most of our careers are not spent acting. They are spent trying to act; hoping to act; waiting to act. I got a few nods from the crowd, but mostly what I saw were glossy stares. Apparently, nobody likes to hear the truth. Not even at a free AFTRA seminar.

Downtime is the toughest part of working in the entertainment business. It can eat away at our confidence; make us feel unwanted, unloved, untalented and unworthy. And sometimes it can lead to some really bad behavior. The healthiest members of our community learn to make peace with The Waiting Room. No matter what we do with our time, some part of us continues to hover impatiently; hoping for our name to be called; our script to be read; our project to be greenlit.

Oddly enough, even if you are employed with some consistency, it doesn’t mean the “waiting” is over. Throughout my 20’s I worked quite a bit as an actor. I was what was known as a “juvenile character type.” I know this because that was what the label said on the filing cabinet where my agent stored my photos. Three or four times a year, I’d cram my laundry into a duffle bag and hop a train to some grimy east coast city where I’d spend a couple of months doing a low-paying theatre gig. The jobs were fun, but not exactly inspiring. I began to wonder how exactly some big deal New York director was going to pluck me from a production of “You Can’t Take It With You” in Buffalo and put me on Broadway. Then one day, my phone rang. A young star had dropped out of an off-Broadway festival of one-act comedies and a “juvenile character type” was quickly needed to replace him. The part fit me like a glove. The festival wound up being reviewed in the New York Times and the critic assigned to it was kind enough to call me “funny and engaging.” Adding to the excitement, the review featured a picture of me in which I actually looked “funny and engaging.” I thought my ship had come in! And in a certain sense it did. Little did I know however, that I was about to be sent back to The Waiting Room – where I paced the floor for another two years before the next decent role came my way.

When I relocated to Hollywood to become a screenwriter, I again thought the wait was over. A wacky script I’d written called “Sacred Estates” was blasting down doors for me all over town. It seemed like all of Hollywood was shouting en masse “Where the hell have you been?!” It was hugely exciting! Finally, I was in the enviable position of creating jobs instead of waiting for them! At last, the chains were off my ankles. I was going to make movies! Since that time, I’ve written a great many screenplays and been paid well for my time. To date, only one of those scripts has ever been made.

I have one project that I sold on a pitch in 2002. In the last eight years, there have been four directors and two movie stars attached. It has gone into turn-around three times and has been announced in the trades at least twice as being “in production.” At one point, an actual production office existed with people sitting at desks – that is before the studio pulled the plug at the last second. Two years ago, I was summoned back to rewrite it as a musical, because musicals were back “in.” For a while, things were looking good. Then as I watched the dreary box office numbers roll in for Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the musical “Nine,” I began to wonder if my project was again headed back to The Waiting Room.

Creative people were born to create. Not fulfilling that instinct can be deadly. I constantly badger my students to stay engaged in some form of creative expression at all costs. And I try to practice what I preach. The last thing you want is to be slumped in your chair, sodden with self-pity when the door opens and your name is called. We are gamblers. And gamblers live on faith. A few weeks ago, I asked my new manager if he thought that particular, now 8 year-old movie would ever see the light of day. My manager is a smart guy; a true Hollywood veteran with an almost legendary reputation of moving scripts and writers through the studio maze. “Yes,” he answered, “I think it will eventually get made.” “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s too good an idea. And too many people have almost made it.” Bewildered, I asked what, if anything, I could do to further its cause. “Nothing,” he answered. “You just have to wait and see what happens.”

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/QuitcherBitchyn

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Pushing the Envelope...

For those of us who live anywhere near the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue in Los Angeles, this is a trying time of year. For the last week, traffic has been snarled for blocks in every direction. Helicopters hover overhead day and night. Busloads of tourists jam our favorite lunch places. Yep, it’s Oscar time again.

I suppose all these petty annoyances are a small price to pay, considering what the Academy Awards do for the entertainment industry. Those little Golden Guys can pump up the box office and restore many flagging careers. They are good for business and God knows we all want business to be good again.

Despite the onslaught of lesser award shows in the past few years, the Oscars are still the granddaddy of them all. Through some tragic oversight, I personally have never been nominated, but I’m not bitter about it. And even though I’ve never even been invited to the ceremonies, I still remain a loyal fan. I don’t think I’ve missed a single telecast since I first discovered the awards when I was about 12 years old. Sadly in the past few years, viewership has started to decline. Not that that should be a big surprise to anyone. Why the hell should it take three hours (or more) to present 24 lousy awards?—Only 5 of which anybody in the viewing audience gives a damn about.

Although it’s pretty clear what and whom will be winning most of the awards on Sunday, there are still a few categories with some suspense hovering around them. This year, I decided to pretend like I’m a big deal entertainment columnist and shoot my mouth off like everybody else seems to be doing. So, working my way backwards from the categories that nobody understands to the big ones people actually stay up to see, I give you my 2010 Oscar predictions:

For “Best Short Film” (“Animated” and “Live Action,” respectively), I predict the winners will be 'A Matter of Loaf and Death' (because it stars Wallace and Grommit) and “China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province.” Truthfully, I haven’t seen either film, so that’s a total guess on my part.

Most of the big tech awards will of course be split between the two most talked about films of the year. The visually groundbreaking “Avatar” will take home “Best Cinematography,” “Best Art Direction,” “Best Visual Effects” and “Best Sound Mixing” and while “The Hurt Locker” will score wins for “Best Film Editing” and “Best Sound Editing” since a major part of that film’s bone-jarring impact was in its brutal, in-your-face editing. For “Best Make-up,” I’d have to go with “Star Trek” since the other two nominees are relatively obscure movies that few people saw, while “Young Victoria” will no doubt take “Best Costuming” because of the Academy’s enduring love for really big dresses.

“Best Foreign Language Film” is always a little tricky to call, but I’m going with Germany’s entry “The White Ribbon” because it’s gotten the most press. Short documentary will go to “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” while “The Cove” will take the feature doc award. Why? Because we here in Hollywood all feel very bad about the demise of the U.S. Auto industry and nobody likes seeing dolphins being killed.

Although this year’s “Best Animated Feature” category is crammed with excellent options, I suspect that “Up” will take the prize because it’s a terrific flick that continues Pixar’s stellar record of producing fantastic films that anybody of any age can enjoy. I also predict that “Up” will win “Best Score.” “Best Song” will go to “The Weary Kind” from “Crazy Heart” because it’s the only tune nominated that anyone remembers.

As you probably expected, I’ve got some strong feelings about the screenwriting categories. Although I think that Geoffrey Fletcher should win for his amazing adaption of “Precious,” I suspect that the “Best Adapted Screenplay” Oscar will go to Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for “Up in the Air.” This will act as a sort of consolation prize since it will probably be the only award that “Up in the Air” will win on Sunday. A similar fate will befall Quentin Tarentino’s “Inglourious Basterds” which will no doubt win a much-deserved “Best Original Screenplay” statuette. In my humble opinion, if “Basterds” had been released in a non-Avatar year, it might well have gone home with shitload of major prizes. I know Tarrantino is not everybody’s thing, but I thought this film was genius.

The best supporting actor and actress categories are no-brainers. In the last few weeks, Mo’Nique (“Precious”) and Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”) have bagged every major prize in sight – and for good reason. Both of these actors turned in performances that redefined how a “villain” can be played on screen. It’s no easy thing to put a human face on despicable behavior and then (at least in Mo’Nique’s case) make the audience feel genuine sorrow for the perpetrator. Congrats to both.

Despite the best attempts of a few hardworking press agents to create a “Meryl vs Sandra” horse race, Sandra Bullock will win “Best Actress” for “The Blind Side.” Ms. Bullock has, in her years in Hollywood, been a real team player and has also managed to generate about 45 million in box office revenues this year alone. Plus, she’s terrific in the film and elevates what could easily have been little more than a limp movie of the week into something genuinely moving. I do feel a little bad that Meryl keeps having to get dressed up year after year to show up for these presentations; this being her sixteenth time. But she already has two statuettes (both for iconic performances), plus she’s still working at the top of her game at age sixty. So it’s okay.

The “Best Actor” award will finally, finally go to Jeff Bridges for “Crazy Heart”; a so-so film that’s held together by his beautifully calibrated and utterly honest turn as a fallen-from-grace country singer struggling for redemption. This guy should have been given an Oscar 25 years ago when he was knocking out truly terrific performances in films like “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” but better late than never. I gotta hand it to the Academy, in that sometimes they do double back and right their wrongs.

And now for the juicy stuff! For the first time in the history of the Oscars, an ex-husband and ex-wife are competing for the “Best Director” Oscar. And guess what, kids? It’s going to go to Katherine Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker.” We elected a black president. Now, we’re going to pick a woman as “Best Director.” About time! I wasn’t a huge fan of the script, but Ms. Bigelow skillfully took us right to the front lines of a gritty and unwanted war that most of us have only experienced in sound bites. “The Hurt Locker” was the first American film about Iraq that managed to avoid preachiness and instead offered us a good, sickening, up-close look at what we reap whenever we chose to wage war on one other. Bravo.

However, we need not shed any tears for Ms. Bigelow’s former husband, James Cameron whose visionary work, “Avatar” will take home the big prize for “Best Picture” (as well it should). I went to see “Avatar” kicking and screaming, because I generally hate films that depend heavily on CGI to dazzle us. I went totally expecting to be underwhelmed. Boy, was I wrong. Mr. Cameron’s 15-year wait for technology to catch up with his vision turned out to be well worth it. Amazingly, his movie – which takes place on an Eden-like imaginary world - actually managed to make audiences think a little about their own planet. Impressive. And the box office wasn’t so bad either! The guy’s quite a showman and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

So, my friends, that wraps up my predictions for the 2010 Oscar race -- and the timing is perfect because (even as I finish typing this) yet another freakin' helicopter has stationed itself over my house with its cameras trained on the Kodak theatre – and the damn awards don’t even start until Sunday afternoon.

Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv

Follow me on Twitter:
http://twitter.com/QuitcherBitchyn